essay prompts

Spin Poetry from your Dreams

Poetry Triggers – Dreams

by Elya Braden, Gyroscope Review Assistant Editor

Many famous writers have used their dreams as inspiration for their writing, including Edgar Allen Poe for The Raven and Mary Shelley for Frankenstein. Often, when I sit down to write a poem based on a past experience, my initial writing is “too linear.” One of the occupational hazards of being a former lawyer, I think, as I remind myself: No surprise for the writer; no surprise for the reader. 

It used to disturb me that I would often wake in the morning with a “dream hangover” – such a vivid memory of my dream that if I took a few minutes to replay it in my mind or write it down, it would come back to me in flashes all day. But once I started writing poetry in earnest, I saw this ability to remember my dreams as a gift. My dream images are so much more surreal, with odder twists and turns and leaps than I can otherwise make up in my writing, that they invariably add a spice of oddness to my poems. Now, I keep a dream journal by my bed to deliberately capture those dreams as good fodder for future poems. Even one specific image, such as green plant shoots growing out of my face, can start a poem from a place of curiosity and wonder.

In addition, dreams, coming as they do from our subconscious, add psychological depth to your poems. Dreams allow you to write about fears or challenges or aspirations through imagery, where the poem may show rather than tell the reader the narrator’s feelings. In my dream about the plant shoots, I was at first horrified by the image and wanted to run away from it. However, as I journaled about it, I realized that the plants represented my creativity sprouting out through my poetry and art. I also realized that my fear was really about allowing that part of me to be seen at a time I was just starting to send my poems out for publication.

There are many ways to use your dreams as inspiration for your poetry. Sometimes, a simple narrative about a dream can be striking because of the surreal juxtaposition of images as in Traveling Dream by Marge Piercy. 

Traveling Dream 
I am packing to go to the airport
but somehow I am never packed.
I keep remembering more things
I keep forgetting.

Secretly the clock is bolting
forward ten minutes at a click
instead of one. Each time
I look away, it jumps.

Now I remember I have to find
the cats. I have four cats
even when I am asleep.
One is on the bed and I slip

her into the suitcase.
One is under the sofa. I
drag him out. But the tabby
in the suitcase has vanished.

Now my tickets have run away.
Maybe the cat has my tickets.
I can only find one cat.
My purse has gone into hiding.

Now it is time to get packed.
I take the suitcase down.
There is a cat in it but no clothes.
My tickets are floating in the bath

tub full of water. I dry them.
One cat is in my purse
but my wallet has dissolved.
The tickets are still dripping.

I look at the clock as it leaps
forward and see I have missed
my plane. My bed is gone now.
There is one cat the size of a sofa.

While many of us have had dreams about being late to a plane or arriving at the airport without our luggage, the specific details in this poem – the clock bolting forward, the four cats in and out of the suitcase, the tickets in the bath, the cat as big as a sofa – all work to create a poem that is memorable for both its strange imagery and for how these images heighten the normal fear we all have of missing a flight or forgetting to bring something we will need while traveling. And who knows if all of these images were actually in her dream? Maybe only one of them was. One of my favorite poetry prompts is: one truth and two lies. This technique can be used to amplify your dream images, especially if you only remember a wisp of your dreams.

Another way to plumb your dreams for poetry is to mix meditations about the dream state and your dream’s meaning with a jumble of images from many dreams to create a larger story about messages in dreams, as in the poem Understand That This is a Dream, by Allen Ginsberg. 

In the opening stanza below, he meditates upon the meaning of dreams:

Real as a dream
What shall I do with this great opportunity to fly?
What is the interpretation of this planet, this moon?
if I can dream that I dream / and dream anything dreamable / can I dream
I am awake / and why do that?
When I dream in a dream that I wake / up what
happens when I try to move?
I dream that I move
and the effort moves and moves
till I move / and my arm hurts
Then I wake up / dismayed / I was dreaming / I was waking
when I was dreaming still / just now.
and try to remember next time in dreams
that I am in dreaming.

The poem continues to discuss how the narrator’s dreams reflect his desires, particularly his sexual desires, and then weaves in seemingly random pieces of dreams from different times and places, but all around the theme of sexual desire, including references to his childhood home, chicken coops, horses, a dentist, and midnight rickshaws in Saigon. The poem ends asking:

 What should I dream when I wake?
What's left to dream, more Chinese meat? More magic Spells? More youths

to love before I change & disappear?

More dream words? For now that I know that I am dreaming /
What next for you Allen? Run down to the Presidents Palace full of Morphine /
The cocks crowing / in the street / Dawn trucks / What is the question?
Do I need sleep, now that there's light in the window?
I'll go to sleep. Signing off until / the next idea / the moving van arrives

empty

at the Doctor's house full of Chinese furniture.

In this poem, even the strange line breaks, mid-line pauses, and random initial caps add an air of dreamy unreality that reflects the narrator’s state of mind. In addition, the repeating images in the poem echo the sense one often experiences in dreams of returning to the same place over and over or running but seeming to go nowhere.

Dreams can also be used to add humor or mystery to a poem, as in My Dream by Ogden Nash:

My Dream
This is my dream,
It is my own dream,
I dreamt it.
I dreamt that my hair was kempt.
Then I dreamt that my true love unkempt it.

The poem begins rather prosaically, but the last two lines nail it. The narrator does not bombard the reader with odd images of the dream. Instead, he deliberately gives only one key detail in order to leave the rest to the reader’s imagination. The reader can then paint her own picture of how the narrator’s hair became unkempt.

Dream Writing Prompt:

1. Write down one image (one sentence or even just a few words) that immediately comes to mind from each of the following prompts. These images can come from your dreams or real life – no one will know but you.

  • the strangest occupation of a former lover
  • your favorite pet
  • a body part
  • an insect or reptile
  • an object from your childhood or from a dream
  • an outdoor landmark (such as a road, a lake, a hill, etc.)
  • a cartoon character or superhero

2. Write down a piece of advice you’ve gotten from someone you respect or advice you’d like to give yourself now or in the past.

3. Read the following poem, Dream poem because I never write dream poems, by Catherine Owen.

Dream poem because I never write dream poems
Woken just as he was about to go down on me/ that sailor
With the insanely long/earlobes

By a cat clawing at the delicately eroding skin/beneath my eye
Did not make me jovial/one bit

But when I fell back to dreaming and it was/of gypsy women
Catching a stream of bees/pouring from my wounds

Into burlap sacks/or else that inevitable toilet
(Would it be/on a cliff this time or transparent

Or fixed to a proscenium/ or shaped to receive dragonflies
Instead of piss)/ I was none too thrilled at my gallant’s

Failure to return to duty/ and worse
It was now a dream containing advice/Broom Hilda

Appearing to warn me/ I would have to & soon
Get rid of the sphincter in my lungs/if I wanted to sing.

4. After you read the poem, go back to your list of images and write a poem in which you describe an imagined dream using as many of those images as you can. Also, include the piece of advice in your poem.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.com